Monday, May 09, 2011

Fish, Stanley. "Dorothy and the Tree: a Lesson in Epistemology." Opinionator Blog. NEW YORK TIMES April 25, 2011.

At one point in The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy (Judy Garland) picks an apple and the tree she picks it off protests: “Well, how would you like to have someone come along and pick something off of you?” Dorothy is abashed and she says, “Oh, dear — I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas,” by which she means she’s now entered an alternate universe where the usual distinctions between persons and objects, animate and inanimate, human beings and the natural world that is theirs to exploit do not hold. In Kansas and, she once assumed, everywhere else, trees are things you pick things off (even limbs) and persons are not. Persons have an autonomy and integrity of body that are to be respected; trees do not. A person who is maimed has a legal cause of action. A tree that has been cut down has no legal recourse, although there may be a cause of action (not, however, on behalf of the tree) if it was cut down by someone other than the owner of the property it stood on.

All this seems obvious, but what the tree’s question to Dorothy shows is that the category of the obvious can be challenged and unsettled. . . .  Hers is not a failure of memory. Hers is not a failure at all, but the inevitable and blameless consequence of having a consciousness informed by certain assumptions about the classification of items in the world, assumptions that deliver those items already catalogued and labeled, exactly in the manner Darwin labels those to whom sympathy is being extended “lower animals” and drops the adjective “useless” ever so casually, that is, without thinking. Rorty is no less limited (not a criticism, but a description) in his vision of things when he restricts the category of the unjustly marginalized to “people.” What about cats, trees, stones, streams and cockroaches?

The obvious answer to this not entirely frivolous question is, “you can’t think of everything,” and that’s the right answer. Despite imperatives like “broaden your thinking” or “extend your horizons or “widen your sense of ‘us,’” thought is not an expandable muscle that can contain or comprehend an infinite number of things. Thought is a structure that at once enables perception — it is within and by virtue of thought’s finite categories that items emerge and can be pointed to — and limits perception; no structure of thought can enable the seeing of all items, a capacity reserved for God. It follows that when you have a change of mind (of the kind the tree is trying to provoke when it addresses Dorothy) you won’t see more; you will see differently. A system of distinctions (and that is what thought is) will always privilege some categories of being and devalue others, sometimes even to the extent of not recognizing them. And when one system is succeeded by another and new things come into view, some old things will have been consigned to the category of chimera and, except for histories of error, will have vanished from sight. (Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution is a primer on the process.) . . .

Read the rest here:

See the follow-up article, "Ideas and Theory: the Political Difference," here:

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